Latin America and the Caribbean

April 1994

By Bonnie Hayskar

In Latin America, where two-fifths of the earth's 100 million street children live, inhalant abuse, particularly glue-sniffing, is pandemic; and it is a legal and profitable business for corporations like St. Paul, Minnesota-based H. B. Fuller and the German company Henkel.

Most Latin American street children, ranging in age from four to 18, have parents who cannot afford to send them to school. So they work on the streets for income--washing car windows, shining shoes, selling food. At night, these children "en la calle" go home to their families. Those with families and homes represent about 60 percent of Latin America's estimated 40 million street children. For the other 40 percent, or 16 million children, their home is the street. These children have been orphaned or abandoned; some were sent to the city to earn money, others have fled violent or sexually exploitative situations.


Benjamin was born during the war in El Salvador. He is 11 now and lives in a box, or "carton" as he describes it, in San Salvador. He has been in the streets since age six and says he sniffs glue because it stops him from feeling hungry. His eyebrows and patches of his hair have been shaved to remove glue someone smeared on his head in disgust. The shaved head now marks him as an "adicto," says Delmy Floria Iglesias, psychologist with the Olof Palme Foundation for the Protection of Childhood. "He is not like the other little children who are homeless and to be pitied. People regard him as an addict and therefore he has no value in their eyes. His abuse is not recognized."

The consequences of the addiction are serious for these children, especially the girls, many of whom are forced into prostitution for survival and, increasingly, to get glue. Lara, a mother at age 16, sniffed glue all during her pregnancy. The glue contains toluene, a neurotoxin, and her baby has respiratory problems and night seizures, according to Angela Dempster, an educator of Salvadoran street children. Lara could not give up the glue and has abandoned her baby to return to the streets as a prostitute.

Sales of the glue used by the children directly buoy the profits of multinational corporations, incrementally increasing as the numbers of street children rise. H. B. Fuller, for example, has such a prominent position in the Latin American toluene-based glue market that its Resistol brand has become the signature of glue-addicted street children, the Resistoleros.

The glue companies are quick to point out that they are breaking no laws in the countries in which they operate. But they have responded to criticism from the North.

After learning of an impending "NBC Dateline" television expose, Fuller's board of directors declared on July 16, 1992 that "the company will discontinue its production of solvent adhesives where they are known to be abused." Following the Fuller Board's resolution, the company received widespread praise from not only U.S. media but also the socially responsible investment movement, accepting accolades from Franklin Research, the Social Investment Forum, the Council on Economic Priorities (CEP), Business Ethics magazine and the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES). When NBC News reviewed the situation one year later, however, it found that the company's announcement had resulted in only minimal removal of small cans from hardware stores in two countries--Guatemala and Honduras--an insignificant fraction of Fuller's sales, according to later reports to shareholders. And the Honduran Public Ministry is investigating allegations that Fuller's competitor, Henkel, illegally imported its toluene glue Pattex to fill the gap on the shelves left by Fuller. Fuller now refuses to release the exact wording of the July 1992 resolution, or even its author.

The delaying tactics and purported subterfuge on the part of these companies are disheartening for people like psychologist Fanny Acevedo at Nicaragua's Institute for Human Advancement (INPRHU), who has seen street children physically disabled from glue-sniffing after two years. As recently as two years ago, glue-sniffing was not much of a problem in Nicaragua. "Now it is widespread," according to Dr. Craig Loftin, of UNICEF Nicaragua. When asked what the glue of preference is for glue-sniffing, he responds, "It's Resistol here."

In Mexico City, 17-year-old Pedro recently left the Children's Psychiatric Hospital after treatment for chronic inhalant abuse. He trembles continuously and can only walk with great difficulty. He has sniffed glue since he was six. Pedro's damage, according to doctors Victor Velazquez and Veronica Maldonado, is permanent and irreversible and affects not only his motor skills but his cognitive ability. In San Salvador, Norman frequently suffers temporary paralysis, the result of six years of glue-sniffing. When so disabled, he crawls and drags himself along Boulevard Los Heroes begging, says Jorge Santillana of the Olof Palme Foundation for the Protection of Childhood.

It is mostly homeless children who become addicted to glue. Like a rite of passage, children generally begin glue-sniffing within the first year they hit the street, regardless of age, according to David Calvert, executive director of Casa Alianza Honduras, a shelter for street children. Because they are frequently unwelcome in stores where owners fear shoplifting, children often buy the glue from adults who purchase it in bulk and resell it in plastic bags, baby food jars and juice cartons. Thus, it is not just the companies, but also such dealers who profit from the children's addiction. Children make two to five purchases a day, according to Iglesias.

The inordinate amount of toluene inhaled exposes these children to excessive health risks, according to pediatrician Dr. Susan O'Brien, a Columbia University fellow in medicine and human rights. Canadian and U.S. medical studies of toluene exposure from glue-sniffing are typically based on infrequent adolescent "recreational" use after school, which seriously understates the harm caused by toluene, she says. "There is no documentation on the virtually 24-hour-a-day exposure we're seeing here," asserts O'Brien, who works daily with street children in Honduras. "These kids sleep with open bottles of the stuff under their noses all night."

"Toluene can perhaps best be compared to the opiates," according to psychiatrist and chemical dependency specialist Dr. Richard Heilman. The euphoria experienced is the result of toluene's toxic effects on the brain. Just as it effectively dissolves plastics, it also dissolves brain cells and other organ tissue. Reacting to this damage, the brain becomes flooded with soothing endorphins and, for a brief time, children actually feel no hunger, no cold and no discomfort. When the period passes, they experience desperation and crave more glue for relief, thus developing a full-blown psychic addiction. Internal damage also results. Last year in Guatemala, after 10 years of glue-sniffing, 16-year-old Joel died of kidney failure with no means to pay for the $50,000 kidney transplant that might have saved his life.

Street children also suffer less obvious harm from glue, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Human Rights Legal Action. In one of the most notorious attacks on street children in Rio de Janeiro, "hooded members of a city 'extermination group' killed seven homeless children and wounded two as they slept," the New York Times reported in July 1993. "The violence grew out of the arrest ... of one youth for sniffing shoemakers' glue, a narcotic."

Widespread chemical addiction in such young children and the violence exhibited toward them, and by them in response, is unprecedented in Latin America. Following previous economic and ideological conflicts, homeless children have historically been reabsorbed into society as conditions improved. The extraordinary number of homeless young people currently in Latin America and the fact that well over half of them are inhalant addicts lessens the possibility that they will ever leave the streets. The addiction's psychic dependency and debilitating physical effects render them "untouchables" in their cultures and, in some cities, they are considered vermin to be exterminated.

Unique factors have created this situation. First, extensive social and economic upheaval in Latin American countries as a result of structural adjustment has led governments to place an emphasis on export development. The exodus from rural areas to cities has torn at the fabric of traditional rural families and created a high proportion of homeless children. Second, because the glue is widely used in the large shoemaking industry, and safety standards for adhesives are non-existent in Latin America, inexpensive industrial adhesives are readily available throughout the region. Third, there are no controls over the distribution of these substances. While other narcotic substances, such as cocaine and heroin, are restricted and sales are criminalized, selling and buying shoe glue is legal. It is striking that in countries such as El Salvador, armed guards with automatic weapons protect fast-food restaurants, but 55-gallon barrels of narcotic shoe glue sit in the open for public sale in local stores.

The companies deny responsibility for the problem. "The problem is not our product," said Fuller CEO Tony Andersen, addressing the Social Investment Forum, which is heavily invested in Fuller stock, "it is society." Its rival, Henkel, agrees: "The problem of solvent sniffing should be tackled by improving the living conditions of the affected children and adolescents and by taking rehabilitation measures," according to Hans Hardenack and Dr. G. Gierenz at Henkel. The companies insist theirs are good products put to bad use.

Corporate Resistance to Reform

As early as 1980, Fuller was aware of the potential value of non-solvent adhesives. The company's 1980 Annual Report stated: "The growing concern over the use of environmentally safe adhesives and sealants is creating market opportunities for H. B. Fuller's line of hot melt and water-based adhesives, a better alternative to solvent-based products." (Hot melts require no solvents or water and are applied with an inexpensive glue gun.) Nine years later, the 1989 Fuller Annual Report stated: "We are commercializing in the Brazilian shoe market two polyamide products.... These can be applied in automated systems in place of solvent cements. We're also ready to sell EVA hot-melt sticks and hand-held applicators for certain shoe lasting and stitching operations."

Yet when asked recently when Fuller would have a water-based shoe glue, company spokesperson Dick Johnson said it could be at least five or six years. And when asked in January l994 why it hasn't marketed its hot melt technology to shoeworkers in Central America, Fuller Vice President for Latin America Ronald Rees said the company could go to hot melts, but it had not tested them for the shoe industry.

While Fuller has been letting this "market opportunity" lie fallow, the company has spent an estimated $2 million in public relations to justify its current position on the glue issue, according to Price Waterhouse employees working for Fuller in Honduras.

In the United States, meanwhile, St. Paul, Minnesota-based 3M has marketed a water-based contact cement for 25 years for industrial use and recently announced that it would introduce the product in Central America. Other companies such as Fiebing's, a Milwaukee-based manufacturer of dyes and adhesives for the leather industry, also sell water-based glues. While drying time is slightly longer for these adhesives than for those that are solvent-based and the texture is thinner, they do provide durable, flexible, water-resistant bonds.

Fuller and Henkel, whose combined annual sales are nearly $10 billion, have yet to produce a similar glue for cobblers, despite the fact that Fuller alone, one-tenth the size of Henkel, spent $27 million in 1993 on research and development. Nor is Latin America insignificant to Fuller's operations, which are 85 percent in adhesives. For the past three years, Latin America has represented 14 to 16 percent of world-wide sales for Fuller, and a hefty 22 to 28 percent of overall earnings.

The actions the companies have taken to discourage glue- sniffing abuse are of questionable value. Both corporations recently announced plans to continue making solvent-based adhesives, switching in the commercial market from the hydrocarbon solvent toluene to the hydrocarbon solvent cyclohexane; their industrial products will remain toluene-based. Fuller began selling cyclohexane contact cement in Costa Rica in January 1994, despite the fact that cyclohexane has never been tested for carcinogenicity or mutagenicity and remains on the EPA's Superfund list of hazardous toxins.

Fuller introduced cyclohexane in March with a "I Promise Fulfilled" campaign that promotes the new formula as an acceptable replacement for its toluene-based product. The ad goes on the say it is "not attractive to inhale." Both statements are unsubstantiated and inhalant abuse experts express concern about the potential hazard to consumers who might believe the glues are non-toxic. "The difference between toluene and cyclohexane is like the difference between a 44 magnum and a 357 magnum," says Oklahoma City medical examiner Dr. Tim Rohrig. They are chemically similar, says Canadian pediatrician Dr. Milton Tenebein, an inhalant abuse specialist, "and capable of inducing sudden sniffing death" (cardiac arrest in otherwise healthy people).

Another interesting development is a joint effort in El Salvador where Fuller and Henkel are planning to experiment by adding Bitrex to their glues. Bitrex is a bitter additive used to deter children from eating household chemicals. It is unclear why the companies would add a taste deterrent, given the fact that the children do not eat the glue, they sniff it. The children already know shoe glue tastes bad and Bitrex is not an odor deterrent.

Significantly, both companies had previously refused to include deterrents because they said they didn't work, despite having conducted no appreciable research on the efficacy of oil of mustard, allyl isothiocyanate (AITC), which is the material used with success by the Testor Corporation to curb the model airplane glue sniffing mania that hit the United States in the 1960s. Fuller and Henkel have lobbied against congressional legislation in both Honduras and Guatemala that would have required the inclusion of AITC. They have told shoemaker unions that the substance is carcinogenic. The claim has never been substantiated and, in fact, there is considerable documentation to the contrary. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has deemed oil of mustard "Generally Regarded as Safe." Even though usually only a small amount is necessary to deter first-time users, the oil's cost of $5,000 per 55-gallons may have been a factor in the companies' opposition to adding it to their product. The companies deny it.

Guy Carynski, Testor's Director of Regulatory Affairs, explains that "toxicologists have confirmed that the risk of toluene overexposure by those intentionally sniffing cements (toluene/other hydrocarbon solvents) outweighs the risk of exposure to AITC."

Other Hazards

In addition to its significant health risks, toluene is notably detrimental to the environment. "In the urban atmosphere, toluene helps to form ozone and contributes to the problem of photochemical smog. Natural plant and animal populations are likely to be at risk from industrial releases of toluene because natural levels are very low in comparison," according to Prof. John Harte, University of California, Berkeley, Department of Energy and Resources, in Toxics A to Z. In the United States, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act prohibits land disposal of toluene. Yet millions of containers of spent glue litter the city streets of Latin America.

Flammability is another hazard. In 1978, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission banned many consumer solvent-based contact cements because of extreme flammability. Fuller's Resistol, Aralite, Tacolite and Plasticola toluene-based glues, with flashpoints well beyond that safety standard according to Spectrum Labs, Inc., border on explosive and would not be legal in the United States.

"An Unfortunate Choice"

In May 1993, Fuller public relations representative Bill Belknap told the Miami Herald's Tim Johnson that the company's July 1992 announcement of withdrawal may have included "an unfortunate choice of wording on our part." In an August 28, 1993 National Public Radio interview, business ethicist Robbin Derry, of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, observed that she found "an interesting lesson in the way Fuller has defined the issue for itself, first by announcing the bold withdrawal of its products from Latin America. Then, after largely failing to follow through on that promise, declaring the glue sniffing problem to be societal, and out of the company's hands."

The company's claim notwithstanding, you will not find a death certificate for any street child that states, "Cause of death: Society;" or medical reports that describe the cause of renal failure or paralysis as "Society." What you will see is "glue-sniffing" or, more generically, "inhalant abuse."

"We're alarmed by the glue's chemical poisoning of millions of children," said children's rights activist Annie Baker. "The numbers involved and extent of generational damage make this tantamount to industrial genocide."

Despite over 12 years of documented damage to children, there have been no independent comprehensive assessments by governmental or non-governmental organizations of the extent of the problem by country or product or the health and safety of proposed chemical solutions.

Meanwhile, Fuller, Henkel and others continue to produce solvent-based glues that are sold to street-children, who continue unwittingly to suffer the lifelong consequences of corporate neglect and public indifference.


Bonnie Hayskar is a publisher of Latin American natural history books and children's rights advocate.

Copyright 1994 Essential Information, Inc.

Multinational Monitor
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